Sunday, March 22, 2015

Done Too Soon

They have sweated beneath the same sun,
Looked up in wonder at the same moon,
And wept when it was all done,
For being done too soon.
--Neil Diamond

Andrea took me to Neil Diamond’s concert in Philadelphia last weekend. It was the sixth Diamond concert I have seen in my lifetime. No performer so captivates my spirit and touches my senses. At 74 years old, Diamond still puts on a great show, and the familiarity of his songs and voice still resonates with my musical soul. I have explained in a previous post the origins of my admiration of Diamond and his music (“Young Child with Dreams: The Enduring Power of Music”) and, while he has lost some of his youthful cool and dramatic flair, his connection with the audience remains authentic and real.

About halfway through the concert, Diamond reminded us that 43 years have passed since he produced Hot August Night, a live recording from 1972 of a memorable performance at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. I bought a copy of Hot August Night when I was 13 years old, and I have been a fan ever since. It is hard to believe that nearly four-fifths of my life has passed in that time, 39 years since I first saw Diamond perform in concert in 1976 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, a venue that no longer exists. I have gone from a young teenager awkwardly trying to be cool (I failed miserably) to a middle-aged man, father and husband, trying to make sense of a life that has moved too quickly and keeps passing too swiftly.

I sometimes have difficulty processing the passage of time. I take such pleasure in walking and writing, talking with friends about life and joy, hopes and fears. I love books, fresh air, and the smell of grass on a warm spring day. I envy those who seemingly glide through life with such conviction and certainty, for I am ever searching, seeking, longing for answers that continue to elude my grasp. I listen to the world, observe it, and take in its abundant natural beauty, its blunt harshness, the diversity of its people, and the many expressions of humanity and faith, longing and desire that this lonely planet, a speck of dust in the vast universe, has to offer. And yet, so often I obsessively try to stay abreast of the news, finish the next book, write the next essay, that I miss the beauty and reality of life around me.

“The past isn’t fixed and frozen in place,” writes Parker Palmer, a Quaker educator and weekly columnist for On Being. “Instead, its meaning changes as life unfolds.” The regrets of our past – the selfish moments and unkind gestures – may lead us to acts of kindness and generosity in the present. Knowing this leads to humility, a much under-valued commodity in today’s overly aggressive, hyper-competitive, self-promoting culture. And it allows us to better hope for the future, to lessen the impact of lost time and the disappearance of youth.
Do you have hope for the future? someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end. Yes, and even for the past, he replied, that it will turn out to have been all right for what it was, something we can accept, mistakes made by the selves we had to be, not able to be, perhaps, what we wished, or what looking back half the time it seems we could so easily have been, or ought. – David Ray (“Thanks, Robert Frost”)
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Two weeks ago, the world lost a compassionate servant of humanity, the Rev. John Steinbruck, whose vision of shalom and justice was matched only by his passionate articulation of radical Christian love. I first met Steinbruck in 1986, when he was the senior pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church, a congregation with a social conscious located on the periphery of what was then Washington, DC’s red light district. Steinbruck practiced biblical hospitality and believed the church to be a place of refuge, where everyone was welcome, from Washington power brokers to homeless drug addicts.

Starting in the early 1970’s, under Steinbruck’s leadership, Luther Place opened its doors each night to hundreds of homeless women, providing sanctuary for the oppressed and rest for the tired, weary, worn souls of the District’s streets. “I don’t need five years of seminary,” Steinbruck often said, “to know that when someone knocks on the door, you open it.” (See “The Saint in the City: The Life, Faith and Theology of John Steinbruck” and “John Steinbruck and the Challenge of Peace”). Steinbruck also was uniquely attuned to the Jewish roots of Christianity and the common ground that existed between these two faith traditions, which was particularly important to me then as a Lutheran in an interfaith relationship raising Jewish children. Steinbruck regularly reminded his congregants of the harms committed historically by Christian anti-Semitism and he involved Luther Place in vigils outside of the Soviet embassy in Washington protesting the plight of Soviet Jewry. By doing so, he made Luther Place a safe and welcoming sanctuary for me and so many others.

I will miss our talks and correspondence; the world will miss his compassion and visionary leadership. If there is a Heaven, you can bet John Steinbruck is there shaking things up. 

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On Tuesday night, March 17th, we joined a small gathering of friends at the home of Ben Cowen and Mia Luehrmann to remember the life of a very special young man, Natan Luehrmann-Cowen, who died five years ago when he was tragically struck by a drunk driver while skateboarding after school a block from his house. The universe was disturbed the day the world lost Natan, and I have yet to fully come to terms with what happened. There are some things that are too numbing for words. But at this dinner, at which those attending engaged in a short ceremony and exchanged reflections and memories, there were more happy memories than sad ones, and it was uplifting and inspiring to observe the courage and bravery of Natan’s family – his loving parents Ben and Mia, and wonderful son Aron (Natan’s older brother) – accept the sadness, embrace the support, and carry on with grace and courage.

Natan was only 13 years old when he died. An exceptionally smart, sweet, energetic soul with a zest for life that surpassed most mortal humans, he was destined for greatness (“Natan Luehrmann-Cowen: Finding Meaning in Great Loss”).The loving unity displayed by Natan’s family the other night gives witness to the truth that pain is an essential part of a meaningful, vibrant life. However much it hurts, it is a direct outgrowth of love and joy and hope. “Wholeness does not mean perfection,” writes Parker Palmer, “It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”

*     *     *     *

On Wednesday night, Andrea lost her dear friend Terry Lazin (pictured above on the right). She was a kind, energetic woman of grace and charm. Andrea and Terry met in 1974 at Temple University Law School, where they became fast friends. Though they journeyed separately through life and, with the passage of time occasionally lost contact, they remained lifelong friends, easily picking up where they left off whenever they re-connected. I had the opportunity to spend some time with Terry last summer when Andrea and I visited her in Arizona, where Terry settled after a career in New York and Chicago. She fought a heroic battle with cancer, but you would never know she was sick or struggling, for her focus was always on others, her friends, her family, and her three friendly, docile dogs. Even after her cancer diagnosis, she formed an animal rescue foundation dedicated to preventing the abuse, neglect, and euthanasia of homeless cats and dogs (Lazin Animal Foundation). She was an immensely talented person, full of life, a positive energy force that the world will greatly miss.

I am sad that the world lost Terry, sad for Andrea and for those who were close to Terry and touched by her life along the way. But I am glad that Terry and Andrea re-connected these past few years and grateful that we experienced Terry's graceful presence in her final months. Andrea gave a beautiful tribute to Terry on a Facebook post after learning of Terry’s passing. In discussing Terry’s unbelievable perseverance in the face of years of cancer treatments, surgery, and medical setbacks, Andrea wrote that Terry always “talked about the cancer as a gift that focused her on the importance of loving the people and circumstances in her life. She implored all of us to not wait to fulfill the promises we make to ourselves to do ‘in the future’ because you can never be guaranteed a future. . . . Sleep well my heroic, beautiful, extraordinary, loving friend. You left a wonderful legacy in this world and unforgettable footprints on my heart.”

*     *     *     *

“Every hour I stand closer to death than I did the hour before,” writes Parker Palmer. “All of us draw closer all the time, but rarely with the awareness that comes when the simple fact of old age – or serious accident or illness – reminds us of where we stand.” The cycle of life and the mystery of death affect us all. I would like to believe that we are on this earth to appreciate and embellish its beauty, to share the gifts we bring, to laugh, to cry, to love. John Steinbruck, Natan Luehrmann-Cowen, and Terry Lazin each in their own way touched the face of God and made the world a better place. I have been inspired by their lives, grateful for their gifts, and blessed to have been given the chance to experience life in all its dimensions.

Before saying good bye and sending us on our way following his final encore last Sunday night, Neil Diamond remarked on the occasional harshness of life and cold reality of the world outside, and he asked that we make an effort to be kind to one another. It was a touching ending to an enjoyable evening and served to remind us that, however comforting it is to seek shelter in the cocoon of our individual lives, we have “all sweated beneath the same sun and looked up in wonder at the same moon.” When the end of our lives draw near, it will be the friendships we have made, the kindnesses we have bestowed, the lessons we have taught and learned from each other, that will remain behind; tiny footprints of memory in the lives we have touched along the way.
You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done . . . you are fierce with reality. – Florida Scott-Maxwell (The Measure of My Days)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Between Two Worlds: Charting a Path Within the Secular and the Religious

Hannah in Israel with International School students, University of Haifa 
The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship. – A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1999
Two weeks ago, my daughter Hannah left for Israel to begin her spring semester abroad at the University of Haifa. A Jewish Studies major who has thoughts of one day becoming a Reform Rabbi, Hannah is on a journey for which I am at once proud, envious, and concerned. She is a passionate young woman who cares deeply about the future of liberal Judaism and a woman’s place in it. She dreams of a peaceful and secure Israel that abides by the moral and ethical principles of its founding and of the values she holds most dear as a Jew. And she cares about human rights, peace, and the future of the planet. She is a courageous young woman for whom I hope her ideals will one day become reality.

And yet, I am under no illusions as to how difficult and perilous a journey she is on. For the next three-and-a-half months, Hannah is likely to gain an advanced education in the complexity and challenges of pursuing a life that walks a middle path between the secular and the religious that is modern day Israel. More than any country on earth, Israel is a mixture of extremes trying to fit within a coherent whole. Broadly speaking, approximately half of Israel’s Jewish population is either Orthodox (20%) or traditional with Orthodox sympathies (30%), while the other half is mostly secular, largely indifferent to Judaism as a religious tradition and, in some cases, dismissive of religious practice and belief (Haaretz op-ed, December 8, 2013).

Jews praying at Western Wall in Jerusalem
It is perhaps not surprising that Hannah in Israel has begun to question how she fits into this widely divergent picture. As she told me on the phone after visiting Jerusalem’s Old City, she at times feels out of place in Israel, as if she is on a countercultural journey with an uncertain future. She loves Israel and its people, but she worries for Israel’s long-term security and future as a Jewish and democratic state, which she contends is being jeopardized by the policies of current Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. And she sees first-hand the disproportionate influence of the Orthodox establishment over Israeli religious life, with few alternatives.

Of course, to live a meaningfully Jewish life in the United States is far more challenging than in the Holy Land. Even secular Israeli Jews with no synagogue affiliation awaken each morning in a Jewish state, speak Hebrew, and celebrate the major Jewish holidays. American Jews by contrast live in a predominantly Christian country in which Jews are only 2% of the population. Given the increasing secularization of American society, the pull of assimilation and pluralism, and the individual freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, it is no wonder that many worry about the survival and long-term prospects of American Jewish life. Unlike in Israel, however, Reform Judaism remains the largest Jewish movement in the United States. When combined with the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, “liberal” Judaism (i.e., Judaism that does not rigidly adhere to halakhah, or traditional Jewish law) makes up the vast majority of American Jewish expression and practice.

Hannah’s journey in Israel is made more complex by the powers ceded by Israeli civil society to the Orthodox rabbinate, which controls what marriages are recognized by the state (only those performed by Orthodox rabbis), and the validity of Jewish conversions, which are recognized in Israel only if performed by the “right” kind of rabbi. Female rabbis are not recognized in the Orthodox movements and women are segregated to the back sections of the synagogue. And because the more liberal Jewish movements (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) are considered inauthentic by most Orthodox rabbis, Israel has for many years been all-or-nothing in terms of religious expression and practice. 

As one who struggles at times with my own faith in a secular age, I know that Hannah is on a fascinating journey at once vibrant and exciting, scary and confusing. By seeking to express her faith tradition in meaningful ways, consistent with her Jewish values and the secular ideals of feminism, equality, environmentalism, and universalism, Hannah is walking what can at times be a lonely path. But it is a walk which offers opportunities for deeply personal connections with others hungry for spiritual nourishment in the context of an abiding and enduring faith tradition.

For much of the past half-century, the Holocaust and the founding of Israel represented for many American Jews essential components of Jewish identity. But as important as these historic events are to Jewish history and Jewish experience, they are wholly divorced from Judaism as a religion. “Judaism is bigger than this,” writes Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and author of Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century (Schocken Books, 2009). Judaism is a covenant with God and a value-based way of life and ethics. Although the Jewish faith has survived four thousand years of exile, oppression, and persecution, Judaism has more to offer the world than stories of victimization and survival. And while bagels and lox and Jewish comedy have enhanced the American landscape, Judaism is so much more than culture and ethnicity. “Everyone has enemies. . . . Everyone has ethnicity,” writes Sacks. “Judaism is the sustained attempt to make real in life the transformative power of hope. And the world, in the twenty-first century, needs hope.”

As a Reform Jew, Hannah has endorsed a movement that is attempting to persuade secular and non-religious Jews that the pursuit of faith is a lifelong quest, an ongoing journey of questioning and commitment. Liberal Judaism allows Jews to embrace and find meaning in elements of Jewish tradition that does not require rigid adherence to the many prescriptions of halakhah that are no longer relevant to most American and secular Israeli Jews.

Hannah is learning that the search for identity is intricately connected to the search for meaning and purpose. When taken seriously, it can become a guidepost to one's life, but of necessity requires emotional and intellectual struggle. It requires that one engage with the world in all its conflict, ambiguity, and messiness; that one look inward, to meaningful rituals, to tradition, and to God. It also requires that one look outward – to the wider world, to art, literature, music, politics, justice, and the human condition.

Young women conducting religious ceremony at Western Wall
As Hannah and other young American Jews are discovering, there are many ways in which to meaningfully commit to a Jewish life and express a meaningful Jewish identity. Whether she someday becomes a Rabbi or decides to walk a different path, Hannah can become an agent of hope and of Jewish renewal; she can partner with others, with God, and with people of all faiths in making the world a better, more peaceful and compassionate place.

While Orthodox Judaism does not offer a practical or meaningful path for Hannah and most of her contemporaries, neither does a complete embrace of secular Judaism offer a compelling and attractive alternative. To reject any semblance of Judaism’s essential connection to monotheism and a belief in God, to any sense of the spiritual and faith-side of Judaism, risks ignoring or forgetting Judaism’s place in the global project of humankind. If Judaism has an essential task, it is to perform tikkun olam, to heal and repair an imperfect world, to affirm life, seek justice, and create a world in which the divine presence dwells among us all. In walking this path, Hannah can add her voice to the symphony of voices that seek a meaningful life, a meaningful faith, traditions worth retaining, and new traditions worth creating. And she can help shape the future of Judaism for generations to come. It is an exciting journey, and a scary one, and I hope I am around a long time to see where it takes her.

Walking path in Haifa, Israel